I went to this concert at Pianos (a cute club on the Lower East Side) on 8/18/15. Francesca is a friend from Madison, the daughter of another friend from Madison, Stephanie Jutt, co-founder of the Bach Dancing and Dynamite Society, for whom I turned pages for many years. Stephanie has been in town for a few weeks visiting Francesca and hanging out, we’ve gotten together a couple of times and had a blast. Francesca is a jazz singer and put together a concert to celebrate her birthday.
Pianos is a cute, run-down performance space on Ludlow and Stanton, a former piano showroom. I got there early and found a sublime spot to stand and write notes for my review: it was in the back corner, at a shelf, with some light spilling over from the sound booth above and behind me. It could not have been more perfect, I felt like Walter Winchell at the Stork Club.
Francesca introduced me to her friend Nathan Xander, who turned out to be the first performer on the bill. He’s a lanky cutie from Pennsylvania, Francesca met him in Chicago and now they both live here. He told me he has a good time forcing jazz drummers to play country, he thinks it’s good for them. There was a digital clock up by the sound booth: I noticed the time and said, “It’s 6:59! Shouldn’t you be warming up?” He tipped his head back, gently cleared his throat, and said, “OK, I’m ready.”
He was playing solo on this show, and I loved his songs. All original work, beautifully constructed songs with involving harmonies and lovely, spare arrangements for the electric guitar. Every once in a while the bass line would double the vocal line, which was always a tasty treat. I only got about two thirds of his words, but I decided not to be bothered by that. His voice has an adenoidal Bob Dylan quality, but the strength of his songwriting transcended his singing. I would love to hear someone else singing these songs, but would be almost as happy hearing him sing them again! He has a warm, easy, winning presence onstage, and was the perfect opening act: he opened up my ears and got the gears working in my musical brain.
Wolff and Tuba was the second act. It’s difficult to explain what they do: Tuba sits surrounded by a laptop and various soundboards and techno hoo hahs, with a small tuba in his lap, a microphone attached near the mouthpiece. Wolff is a straight-up drummer, sitting at your typical trap set. Tuba started a song by singing a short, one-measure pattern, or playing it on his tuba, or knocking a rhythm on the tuba. He pushed a button and that pattern repeated. Then he added a second layer, and a third, and on and on. Eventually Wolff would come in with the drums and Tuba would add a pre-recorded harmony track. Their act was greatly helped by the inclusion of nature videos. It was also helped by the super sexy drummer, but then any man would look sexy while playing drums with a hummingbird projected on the screen behind him.
I didn’t make any notes about their first song, I was simply dazzled by their set-up. The second song had a neo Devo driving beat, and the leopard was eating the ostrich. Or was it Kraftwerk? Or was it a jaguar? The third song sounded like the English Beat in East Berlin, and the monkeys were scaling the cliff. Fourth song: sounded like the love theme from the low-budget 1980s sci-fi movie, and the Venus flytrap was eating flies, the flies (at first) blithely unaware. Fifth song: a skittish strut, two red ants in a duel. Last song: a tight, rockin’ number for the drummer, and a little red frog hopped about.
There were two acts after Francesca, but I left when she was done, so for all intents and purposes, she was the last act. She had a killer band: two trumpets, an alto sax, keyboards, electric bass, and drums. The drummer looked like a hunky version of my friend Jim Kryshak and one of the trumpet players looked like a bookworm Jim Kryshak. She could call her group Francesca and the Kryshaks, but only I (and a handful of others) would find that amusing.
Francesca is the real deal, a marvelous singer. She’s a skilled singer, knows how to spin the sound, when to hang back, when to surge forward, when to do something inventive, and when to let the song speak for itself. Her voice reminds me of Tracey Thorn, the lead singer for Everything But the Girl - - she has that same smooth, cool sound.
The first song was “Be cool” by Joni Mitchell, in a super groovy arrangement. Next was “Easy street” by Randy Newman, cute song, then “Lucky guy” by Rickie Lee Jones. The next song was “Adult things” by a songwriter friend of Francesca’s from Chicago - - it had a killer instrumental break by the keyboard player, bassist, and drummer (the wind players were taking a break). I should mention that the bass player was a woman and was super cool and super sexy.
Francesca’s brother Trace played cello on “Tonight someone is me” by Leo Sidran, and she had a friend playing violin. They played well and gave a nice change to the sound. They stayed with her for the next song, a song she wrote, “And so it goes on and on”. It was very strong, especially considering she had never before performed a song she’d written. It built up in intensity to a satisfying crescendo, and the crowd deservedly went wild. The last song (with the wind players coming back) was “People make the world go round”. Her set was supreme, she’s such a talent, and the whole evening was unique and fun, without a doubt the best $8 I’ve spent in a long time.